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Northeast Ohio Prepares for the Gay Games

Monday, January 13, 2014 at 8:10 AM

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Decathlete Tom Waddell founded the Gay Games in 1982

Thousands of athletes from around the world will come to Northeast Ohio, this summer, to compete in the 9th Gay Games --- an Olympic-style sporting competition that was launched over thirty years ago as a way of promoting inclusion in sports. The Gay Games have traditionally been held in more glamorous destinations, such as New York, Cologne and San Francisco, and organizers see the 2014 Cleveland Games as a chance to show that the industrial Midwest can be gay-friendly. ideastream’s David C. Barnett reports on local efforts to get that message across.

Like many teenagers, Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell felt he didn’t fit in when he was young.  In a 1994 documentary, Waddell said that isolation came from his sexual orientation.

TOM WADDELL (from tribute film): I really felt like I was the only homosexual in my entire high school.  I thought I was the only homosexual in the world, the only person who had those kinds of feelings.  I didn’t want to be this social, physical, bizarre outcast. 

Those feelings eventually led him to create the Gay Games in 1982, a sporting event whose hallmark was inclusion --- where anyone could compete, regardless of whether they were Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or even straight.  Local Gay Games officials are preparing to register as many as 10,000 athletes, this August, at venues throughout Greater Cleveland and Akron.  But, before the welcome mat is laid out for all of those visitors, Christen DuVernay says there’s some consciousness-raising that still needs to be done at home.

CHRISTEN DuVERNAY:There are many LGBT people here in Northeast Ohio that don’t feel welcome.

As Director of Programs for the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio, DuVernay is holding training sessions for local businesses and institutions that will interface with the Gay Games participants --- everything from hotels and restaurants, to museums and art galleries…

CHRISTEN DuVERNAY:…to encourage the organizations that folks are doing business with to have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression --- not only in terms of the consumers that they’re serving, but their own personnel, as well.

Like, for instance, a heterosexual guy waiting tables at a local restaurant who becomes a little less animated when he approaches a group of gay men, because he doesn’t want to be misinterpreted as flirting. 

CHRISTEN DuVERNAY: And when he comes to you it’s, like “I’m taking your order and I’m out of here.” So, even if he doesn’t say, “Eww, gross.  I don’t want to be around these gay people”, that’s what it conveys.

Local organizers have been looking for advice from previous Gay Games host cities… to get pointers on issues to anticipate.  The 2006 Chicago Games were picketed by a fundamentalist Christian group known as the Illinois Family Institute.  Executive Director Peter LaBarbera, objected to using sports to, as he put it, “promote homosexuality”.  But, LaBarbera told a reporter at public radio station WBEZ that his beliefs didn’t come from a place of hatred.

PETER LaBARBERA: We do believe that God calls us to love people identified as homosexuals, just like he calls us to love all people.  But, he doesn’t call us to love their behavior. 

In the months leading up to the Chicago Games, LaBarbera tried to persuade the Illinois tourism board to deny a funding request from the Gay Games, but failed.  He also teamed with a Mississippi-based Christian group to dissuade Kraft Foods from contributing $25,000 to the Games, but the company ignored the protests.  Aside from those kinds of challenges, Chicago Games board member Tracy Baim says security was also a concern during the Games, and it was important to coordinate with the local safety forces.

TRACY BAIM: We definitely were worried that there’d be an isolated incident of a homophobic police officer or emergency services person, so we just made sure we dealt with all the people at the top --- the police commanders, the fire commanders.

Similar coordination is taking place in Cleveland. Ed Tomba, the Police Department’s Deputy Chief of Special Operations says his staff has spent months planning for the Gay Games.

ED TOMBA: All of last year, there’s been on-going training as to what to expect and awareness issues for the men and women that’ll be working those games.

The Diversity Center’s Christen DuVernay hopes that all these preparations to host the visiting athletes for this special event will accomplish… a larger goal.

CHRISTEN DuVERNAY: It’s not just about creating an illusion of us being LGBT inclusive, but what is the legacy that it’s going to leave afterwards?  It’s much more about being more about digging deeper than that, and creating an entire community here in Northeast Ohio that values LGBT inclusion.  And inclusion overall.

So far, there’s been no significant opposition to the coming Cleveland games.  But with eight months left before they get underway, organizers say they’re prepared to answer any protests that may arise.

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